Chiefs’ ceiling contingent upon the fate of Alex Smith

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Alex Smith is the best quarterback on the Kansas City Chiefs roster, but that’s not a sufficient enough reason to keep him as the unquestioned starter if his recent struggles continue.

Let’s be clear about the quarterback situation in Kansas City — there is no controversy. Alex Smith is the team’s best option at the position, period. Once you control for game experience, overall consistency and the ability to play mistake-free football, there’s little discussion to be had about who the Chiefs starter should be. Backup Nick Foles certainly has a number of NFL starts to his credit, but hasn’t had the kind of sustained success it would require to warrant strong consideration as Smith’s replacement. At least, that’s the prevailing narrative in and around One Arrowhead Drive. In conversation, it’s typically a non-starter. Today’s question: Should it be?

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Since 2011, Alex Smith has won more regular season games than everyone not named Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. The 11-year veteran is 56-24-1 over that stretch (he’s had 39 wins since coming to Kansas City). Smith-led teams win roughly 70% of the time. That’s as close to unimpeachable as a quarterback who hasn’t won a Super Bowl can get. He’s had a ton of success in recent years, including a recent playoff win, but the history hasn’t been enough to insulate him from calls for his head.

Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In an odd way, Smith’s contribution to winning teams has been a gift and a curse. The more perennial prosperity, the more responsibility he’s asked to shoulder. Winning begets expectation. The Kansas City Chiefs have built a stellar, championship-caliber defense. With it, they’ve managed to keep pace with the AFC’s top two teams (New England and Oakland). The Chiefs are just one game shy of the conference lead with five weeks to play. They’re in as good a position for the division title, as the sole 3-0 team in the AFC West, and one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoff picture. Kansas City will get another crack at Oakland and Denver on their home field. If they can take care of business in both contests, they stand as a good a chance as any team in the conference at a first-round bye.

The question becomes, can Alex Smith play well enough under postseason lights to advance beyond the wildcard round? Smith’s played three postseason games since coming to Kansas City and in those games, he’s 76-of-118 for 814 passing yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a 64% completion rate and a passer rating of 97.91. Overall, that’s a rock solid postseason stat line that seems to suggest the biggest stages aren’t too much for Smith to handle. Though, it’s worth noting that only one of his postseason performances as a Chief can be characterized as anything more than efficient. That game, to no fault of Smith’s, resulted in a loss (to Indianapolis).

Throughout his career, he’s affectionately (or perhaps pejoratively) been called a “game manager.” The past several years have been marked by efficient — though unremarkable — play. He’s not particularly adept at carrying a team, but had been excellent at staying out of the offense’s way and playing a blemish-free brand of football. Lately, he’s been a shell of his former self and may possibly be suffering from the aftereffects of a pair of brutal hits that gave him twin brushes with the NFL’s concussion protocol. In recent weeks, Smith’s seemed timid, has had little pocket presence and has missed a number of open receivers in key situations. He even appears to be hesitant to run the ball given a window to do so.

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Football is the ultimate team sport, but the fortunes of the most successful franchises are invariably tied to quality quarterback play. Offensive warts are tough to hide under playoff lights. Kansas City appears to have a defense conducive to making a postseason run, but without a mildly complementary offense, the Chiefs could be headed for another two-and-done trip to the tournament. It’s possible that the Chiefs will have to travel to Oakland or New England in the divisional round. We know defense travels in January/February, but can Smith orchestrate enough offensive production to keep pace with superior quarterbacks like Derek Carr and Tom Brady?

Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Much of what transpires over the next month rides upon Alex Smith’s ability to return to form. He’s lost his swagger lately and his body language bespeaks a quarterback lacking confidence. Smith appears to be hanging his head on a much more regular basis in response to offensive ineptitude. He also seems to be missing a real feel for the pocket lately. There were at least two occasions in Sunday night’s game in Denver where he surrendered seconds before a defender took him to the ground. It’s tough to produce quantifiable in-season change for an NFL player, but Reid will have to find a way if he’s serious about sticking around for late-January football.

Have you lost faith in Smith’s ability to get the Chiefs to the promised land or is this just an inevitable rough patch that every NFL quarterback hits? Should Reid consider a change at quarterback or are the Chiefs in too deep with the Sixty-Eight Million Dollar Man? Would you put Smith on a short leash if you were in Reid’s shoes? Use the comment section below to begin what I’m sure will be raucous debate. As always, we appreciate your readership and support.

Until next time, Addicts!

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